How Refugees Die

John Psaropoulos

Spring 2019

I met Doa Shukrizan at the harbormaster’s office in the port of Chania, in western Crete. She sat with her back to a balcony overlooking the street, and the strong morning light enveloped her delicate figure, so that there appeared to be even less of her than there was after her ordeal with the sea. Doa’s face had peeled from extreme sunburn; she spoke softly. Between the cavernous ceiling and polished concrete floor, the only furnishings were tables, chairs, and ring binders, so that voices, however slender, resounded. There were no secrets in this room. During the hour that we spoke, three coast guard officers sat at their desks not doing any work, transfixed by what she said.

Doa and her fiancé had been among some five hundred people who boarded a fishing trawler at the port of Damietta in the Nile Delta on September 6, 2014. Many, like Doa, were Syrian. Others were Palestinian or Sudanese. All were fleeing war and had paid smugglers to ferry them, illegally, to Italy.

Doa’s family had fled their native town of Daraa soon after the Syrian uprising began there in March 2011, when Doa was just sixteen. They spent more than two years in an unofficial refugee camp in Egypt, and pooled enough money to pay Doa’s and her fiancé’s passage, so they could start their lives in Europe.

“On the fourth day after we set sail, between noon and two o’clock, we were met by another fishing vessel,” Doa said. “The people on it asked us to stop. They threw pieces of metal and wood at us and swore at our captain. Our boat refused to stop and they rammed us. They waited until we had sunk and they left.”

Doa said the boat was submerged in ten minutes. She remembered hearing the screaming of women and children below decks. She survived along with about a hundred people because she had been on deck, but her fiancé did not. Over the next three days and two nights, all but five of those initial survivors would die of exhaustion and dehydration as they treaded water in the open sea. Doa and the other four were spotted by a Greek merchant ship south of Crete; a Greek coast guard helicopter airlifted them to Chania.

Only later, when I reviewed the video recording of our interview, did I realize that Doa wept quietly to herself during the breaks between answers, as I turned to the local mufti who translated from Arabic to Greek, recomposing herself each time she and I recommenced our conversation. “She cries herself to sleep every night,” the mufti, Ashraf Kabara, told me later. He and his wife and daughters had effectively adopted Doa.

At the mufti’s apartment, I also met Hamad Raad, a Palestinian barber who also survived this mass murder on the high seas, and he corroborated much of what Doa said.

“Some people had their children in their arms, and when their children died they would let them slip under the waves,” said Hamad. “It was very difficult for relatives to look after one another. People looked after themselves.” Thirst led to desperate measures: “The men would urinate into bottles that were floating in the wreckage and gave it to their children to drink.”

Doa claims she found the strength to survive only because others entrusted children to her. “A grandfather who had a one-year old baby girl on a [floating] container asked me to look after it because I had an inflatable ring. And I put the baby on the ring and kept it,” she said fighting back tears. “Then a mother came with an eighteen-month-old baby girl and a six-year-old girl and asked me to take care of the baby, andI kept it too. I watched the grandfather and the mother and her older daughter die. The one-year-old baby died just before we were rescued.”

John Psaropoulos has been covering Greece since 1992. He is an independent journalist based in Athens and has reported for CNN, NPR, the Weekly Standard, Al Jazeera International, and irin News among others. He blogs on thenewathenian.com.

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